Give students who need it most a choice

There is an educational divide in Idaho. On one side are children like our own who live in Boise. We have outstanding public school options like Boise Senior High School and public charter schools like Sage International School of Boise. We also have outstanding private school options in excellent schools like Bishop Kelly or Riverstone International School. In fact, some of our children are in these schools.

On the other side of the divide are families who lack school options or choices. They attend whatever school they are assigned to in their district, or they live in a rural community that might have only one school. The educators in these schools do what they can to educate all their students as best as they can. But we know that not all kids learn in the same ways, and that one school may work well for one child but not the other.

We also know that traditional public schools struggle to educate all students well. This is evidenced by Idaho achievement data from 2016-17 that shows 53 percent of our students are proficient in English Language Arts (ELA) and 43 percent proficient in mathematics. While having about half of our students below proficient in the basics is alarming in its own way, it is even more troubling when you look at achievement gaps. For economically disadvantaged students in Idaho only 41 percent are proficient in ELA and 31 percent in math. It’s even worse for minority students among whom only 37 percent are proficient in ELA and a meager 27 percent in math.

Idaho has been working hard to improve achievement for its students. In recent years the state has bumped up K-12 spending by several hundred million dollars. For 2018-19, the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee approved another $100 million increase, according to the Idaho Education News, with total general fund spending now reaching nearly $1.8 billion. In addition to new money, Idaho has embraced a host of other school reforms from providing dual credit opportunities for high school students, to expanding STEM learning opportunities, to expanding public charter school options. All good and worthy efforts.

But, there is more that can be done to improve opportunities for Idaho’s families and children. House Bill 590 being debated in the state Legislature is a good place to start. The bill would provide a private scholarship option for Idaho’s neediest students — specifically, students from low-income households (a family of four making less than $46,000 a year), students with special needs, students who are considered at-risk and children of active duty military personnel.

These “GEM account” scholarships would be made available to eligible students on a first come first serve basis by non-government organizations that would serve as scholarship granting organizations (HB590 would allow three such organizations to operate across Idaho). These scholarships would be funded by private donations from individuals or corporations, who would receive a tax credit for their contribution to the scholarship fund. All contributions would be voluntary, and those contributing money would receive no direct benefit for their children. The contributed dollars would go to support the eligible students described above.

Some argue this approach is a school voucher, but it is not. Idaho’s constitution contains a religion clause, referred to as a “Blaine Amendment,” that prohibits the state Legislature from appropriating public funds to aid schools operated by religious institutions. School choice programs operated by a non-government organization (as GEM accounts would be) and funded by private contributions, which could be eligible for a tax credit (also as GEM accounts would allow) have been upheld by the United States Supreme Court because the state does not handle any of the funding. Monies for GEM scholarships to religious schools do not come from publicly held funds.

Another argument against private scholarships funded by a tax credit is that it will hurt traditional district schools because they will receive less money from the state. While it is true that some school districts may receive less state funding because of students enrolling in the GEM account program, there is no evidence to suggest that districts, or the students they continue to serve, will suffer.

GEM accounts would not include local tax dollars — a state average of about $1,800 per student. These locally raised funds would stay with the school districts even when students left for other options. In addition, the large districts most likely to be affected by students leaving for private scholarships — because that’s where most students live — are growing faster than they can build new school capacity. GEM accounts would serve as a safety valve for districts like West Ada or Idaho Falls School District 91, which face overenrolled buildings and burgeoning class sizes.

Finally, a recent decision in Florida provides further evidence. In August of 2016, a unanimous three-judge panel dismissed a lawsuit challenging Florida tax credit scholarships because the plaintiffs offered no evidence that the scholarship program harmed public school funding.

Idaho lawmakers and policy makers are wise to continue investing in its public schools. But this need not be an either-or situation. A growing Idaho is smart to diversify its bets on what learning opportunities work best for which children. A targeted and limited GEM account tax credit would be simply another constitutionally appropriate learning option for families and students that need different choices to better meet their needs.

Written by Blake Youde,  executive director of Education for All, and Sarah Quilici, Emily McClure and Terry Ryan, who all serve on the Education for All board.

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